An old man sat just now and "chico" said and questioned me about my Spanish when I ordered a café con leche. "Grande o chico," the waitress asked me. And, understanding then the old man's greeting, "Grande," I answered. And then--"in school and travelling." And he told me about how he learned English on his own; how he loved it, "all of it," poetry, philosophy, "all of it." And we mentioned southern California which we had in common. And he said the coffee in this Ciudad Juárez cafe is the best coffee on either side of the border, in either Juárez or El Paso. I mentioned how I had lived in El Paso once and how this cafe was my favorite on either side of the border. And we lulled then into a quiet. And the waitress lay before the old man a pan dulce. "No," I answered her. And he was saying goodbye suddenly, his frosty moustache a-twitch. "Que le vaya bien," I offered him, to be left then to these pages, suddenly, alone, to scribble the old man's words, to recall my shivering last night on Rio Grande Boulevard, in the Winnebago, hunched over a cup of steaming chamomile tea, in the ecstatic rigid cold, seeing how it would now begin.
"Hey man!" These were hostile words. "What are you doing here?!" The young man spat them at me as I stepped to the glass front of this cafe. But this is very uncommon. Years have passed since I've received such an unwelcoming. So I will not begin with him. He was outside anyway. Cold. His foul breath a cloud. And this is inside now. Warm. The waitress receiving me gently. The old man amiably nodding over his chico and pan dulce and frosted twitching lip. Such an ease in his manner toward me. And when you're comfortable among these folk they let you be--even when a stranger, or an outsider--my lot on either side of the border.
And then the ecstasy of last night's chamomile, that burning cold in my feet. Last night I thought I would begin there--finally--with the cold and the steaming tea. For eight or nine weeks ago this journey really began. And for eight or nine weeks therefore this beginning has been in gestation. But not until last night did I realize I had to chronicle it; that, if I were really to understand, if I were really to try to see, I would have to scribble it down, to keep an account. Maybe after it's all over it will be clearer, I thought--and still think. Maybe if it does not come to me as a sudden revelation, as some shard-like moment of enlightenment, it will come to me afterward, from these notes, in study, gradually. Yes. Anyway, that is me there you see shivering in the Winnebago, thinking these thoughts, scrooched up in blankets. And even shivering, you'll note, even without a functioning heater in that ailing horse of mine I could still pull the curtains open a little and look up at the gothic gray blocks of the First Baptist Church of El Paso and say to my fate: "If this is how it's going to be--I thank you in advance;" and watch the thick steam of the chamomile rise in the candle light; and warm my face in the thick steam of the chamomile and candle light; and see suddenly how it would now begin.
But an old man sat and "chico" said. And that is a much better beginning. And a young man spat, "Hey man!" And that is not. And the waitress warmed me with her smile as we sipped from our cafés con leche.
"Ah, beautiful, but expensive," the old man said of San Diego. He had that paradise lost expression former residents of the city wear. And so I began with him. But now he is gone. And another old man has claimed his stool. Los ídolos mexicanos is the book on the counter before the new old man. The new old man lays the book in a circle of creamy coffee left by the old old man's chico as he continues to talk with his hands to a neighbor that is not me. A rendering of an Aztec god decorates the cover of that book. And another chico appears before the new old man. He did not even ask for it.
Every time I think of El Paso or Juárez I think of this cafe--La Fonda Vieja. Three years now since I've visited. The waitress is still the same. The tide of morning chaos has ebbed, I know. These conversations like a groggy sea are familiar. I never arrived here before 10 a.m. Newspapers. Cowboy hats. "Quieres café, mijo?" the waitress just asked a man in a blue necktie. I remember them calling her "la güera" before, her hair yellow-blonde dye. The necktie nods, still sleepy-eyed. Sweet-smelling trays of pan dulce. Politics among the patrons to my right. Virgin Mary calendar tacked up over the cash register. And I will end now my beginning by gesturing. I lift a finger, "Otro chico, por favor," I say to la güera. For who knows when I'll be back? La güera just nods, notes something on another patron's check. How I'm craving a newspaper!
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